Friday, October 4, 2013

Teaser for Gareth Edwards' Godzilla

Well, damn. Longtime readers (ha!) will know that I have something of an affinity for Godzilla movies, and the teaser trailer for Gareth Edwards' franchise reboot has made its way online. It's included below so give it a watch. My six word take on it is this: I am torn, but mostly excited.

On the one hand it just fucking nails the tone. The J Robert Oppenheimer voice-over with his famous "I am become death, destroyer of worlds" is absolutely perfect for more reasons than I can say in just this sentence, and really sells me on the idea that Edwards understands and respects the source material. It also points towards this movie at least doing something new with the whole "all giant monsters are a metaphor for 9/11 always" thing that's so pervasive these days, but that's another post for another day (or did I write it already?). I'll even buy the slightly-cheesy way they worked Gozilla's cry into the Oppenheimer speech, because they're using the iconic sound and it really works well.

On the other hand, that is not a man in suit.

I wasn't the biggest fan of Edwards' Monsters, but with a bigger budget we can at least be sure that this movie will nail the on-the-ground experience of the obligatory human characters. Judging from how dark they look to be going, it seems appropriate that they're focusing on the larger-than-life, beyond-imagination and control aspect of Godzilla. Really fits with the Oppenheimer quote, and actually makes me excited to see how human beings react to this incredible monster unleashed upon them.

Ok, I take it back, I'm almost entirely excited. Fuck! Godzilla man! #pleasedontfuckthisup

Edit: Now with a working video link.

Repost: Michael Jackson and the Music of Sonic 3

This is one of the geekier things I've posted in a while, but as a fan of video games, video game music, and Sonic the Hedgehog in particular, I found this video by GameTrailers fascinating. As you'll see below, the debate about Michael Jackson and Sonic 3 has been raging for years, and it's great to hear some (semi) official words on what went down.

I won't spoil it for you, check out the video below, it's worth the watch. And here is the link to the music-comparison video by Qjimbo they cite.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
Well done to the Breaking Bad team, with special mention to Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Rian Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk, and (especially) Betsy Brandt and RJ Mitte (who both broke my heart last night), not to mention everyone else. You've all managed to accomplished something rather incredible: you've created something truly special, memorable, and unique; you're stuck the landing (so far, at least); and you've managed to get the world at large at least tangentially interested in poetry. Well done to you all. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On PAX, Privilege, and Free Expression

I've been watching the news and opinions coming out about Mike Krahulik's statement at PAX last Monday. One issue that keeps getting brought up again and again is freedom of speech, which is a topic I've spent a not-insignificant amount of time thinking about. I'm not sure what I can really add to the discussion beyond what Rachel Edidin has said in her fantastic piece over at Wired, but I'm going to give it a shot because I want to weigh in a bit on the free expression issue.

In case you're not familiar with the situation, I'm going to crib Edidin's breakdown of the facts because she does a pretty good job at it and, frankly, it's not what I'm interested in talking about here. Do go give her piece the hits it deserves though, it's well worth it (and I feel slightly guilty quoting from it at such length):
Here’s some quick context: In 2010, Penny Arcade posted a comic strip that involved a character describing being “raped to sleep by dickwolves.” The rape joke wasn’t the point of the strip — it was an illustration of the screwed-up ethics implied by the quests in videogames like World of Warcraft, where after a player has rescued, say, five hostages or slaves, there’s no real impetus (and sometimes no mechanic) to save any of the others.
Whether or not the strip was offensive isn’t really relevant at this point: More than the comic itself, what made the most impact was how Penny Arcade responded to the readers — including rape survivors — who said it upset them. First, they mocked their critics with a series of posts and a flippant non-apology. In a subsequent “make a strip” demonstration at PAX Prime, Krahulik further needled the issue by drawing a dickwolf, and Penny Arcade even monetized the discomfort over the rape joke by making and selling “Team Dickwolves” shirts and pennants. 
Eventually, the argument died down to a dull roar.Penny Arcade made it clear that they still disagreed with both the criticism of the initial strip and the subsequent concerns from critics, but pulling the t-shirts and pennants out of the store was a significant gesture, one that — perhaps — signaled a willingness to acknowledge that this was a situation where inclusion mattered more than proving that they had the power to do whatever they wanted.More people protested, and some companies and speakers began making noise about pulling out of PAX Prime. Finally, the dickwolves merchandise was was removed from the Penny Arcade store. Krahulik made it clear that he objected to the decision to stop selling the merchandise, and would be wearing his dickwolves shirt at PAX to illustrate that point, even though he knew the dickwolves — and the sentiment they expressed — made many potential attendees feel uncomfortable and unsafe. 
And then on Monday at PAX, in front of an audience of thousands, Krahulik told business manager Robert Khoo that he regretted pulling the Dickwolves merchandise from the Penny Arcade store — merchandise he had created as a “screw you” to rape survivors who had had the temerity to complain about a comic strip. While the audience burst into applause, Khoo nodded sagely and said that now they knew better; now they would just leave it and not engage.
I still read Penny Arcade comic now and then, and I genuinely like Ben Kuchera and the other fine folks at the Penny Arcade Report.  But lately I find that whenever Penny Arcade gets my attention it's because of something awful Krahulik has said, or an aggressively defensive stance he's taken after being called out for his shitty comment. I'm not alone in making this observation. Krahulik and his perspectives are increasingly the focus of commentary on the Penny Arcade brand. Most recently he made some flippant remarks about trans-gendered people that sparked an online debate that (I felt) was at least ultimately productive-ish, thanks entirely to the bravery of Sophie Prell. The whole fiasco culminated with Krahulik making a half-hearted apology that basically amounted to "I don't feel any different but I'm sorry my perspective hurts people."

And then he brought the dickwolves thing back, out of nowhere, at PAX this week.

Chris Franklin AKA Campster -- who makes extremely awesome and intelligent videos that you should check out -- had this to say:

Campster's point was in response to Krahulik's continued defence that he's "just some guy who draws comics, and was a victim of bullying." As Emma Story (quoted in the Wired piece) puts it,
The unexamined privilege in [Mike's] viewpoint is sort of breathtaking — the fact that a straight white male, a celebrity with countless followers who will agree with anything he says, doesn’t see that he is in a position of power over other significantly marginalized groups is almost beyond believing. What he is doing is bullying, no question, and it’s not excused by the fact that kids were mean to him when he was in school.
Story puts the whole thing into perspective by identifying Krahulik's position of influence and apparent refusal to recognize that power. This is the same man who, just a few months ago, said
My reaction when I feel backed into corner is to be an asshole. It’s essentially how I defend myself. It’s been that way since was in elementary school. I’m 36 now. Maybe it’s finally time to try and let some of that shit go. 
Lets set aside the fact that even in that statement Krahulik still ignores his privilege and instead focuses on his personal baggage. By bringing dickwolves up again Kraulik made it clear that he has not let that particular shit go. He clearly still feels it was wrong to take down the merchandise that implicitly mocked rape victims. He still feels like that was a loss, that Penny Arcade 'backed down' and relented to critics via self-censorship.

There it is: censorship. [noun] /ˈsensərˌSHip/ The notion of being forced to not say/do something by others. Never mind the fact that the particular thing at issue here was an aggressive response to some fans saying they were made uncomfortable by a throwaway joke. Oh no, what's important here is of course the principle of being able to say or do whatever you want whenever you want, no matter how it affects other people. That was clearly what Krahulik had in mind when he announced he'd be wearing a dickwolves shirt to PAX in 2011, and it had the desired response of rallying certain Penny Arcade fans like (the aptly named) @Teamrape, who tweeted
Krahulik is a mess of an Internet celebrity but to his credit he is at least trying to be better: in his "clarification" of the dickwolves comment this week he manages to sound an awful lots like the Parallel Universe Mike Krahulik that Daniel Griffiths imagines; whether it's too little too late is a matter of perspective, but at least there's that in his favour. However, what continues throughout all of this is the notion on the part of Krahulik and his ardent fans that there is censorship at work here. That somehow they are the ones being bullied by those who think all this dickwolves nonsense is unacceptable.

There's a stark difference between rights and what's right, and when concepts like freedom of expression get bandied about in relation to asshole-ish conduct then that line gets crossed. At its core this whole debate isn't -- and has never been -- about what people can or cannot say. Shy of violent or hate-promoting speech, go nuts and say what you want, just don't pretend that listeners aren't entitled to react. What's at issue here is the fact that Krahulik did something that other people found offensive, and when they called him on it he responded aggressively by questioning their right to criticize him. Since then his fans have rallied around the concept of freedom of expression and gotten into some sort of grudge match with rape victims and their supporters.

I for one am sick and tired of free expression being used as a blanket defence against reproach when people say shitty things on the Internet. In particular, I am done with it being the go-to response of dudes who feel attacked when some property they adore gets criticized. "Oh, you didn't like it when my favourite video game employed sexist art and game mechanics? Well fuck you! It's my right and how dare you say otherwise?" It's infuriating to see free expression used as the go-to flag of self-righteousness for people who want to act consequence-free, and who can't seem to see the irony of using that freedom itself as a basis for censorship -- because yes, the endgame behind all the dickwolves rallying is that the critics shut up and let the Penny Arcade guys go back to doing whatever they want.

Free expression is not about being able to speak or act with impunity. It does entail being able to express what you want and face the consequences. But there's more going on here than that because of the position that Krahulik holds in the industry and the sheer significance of his support base. As evidenced by developer Christine Love, who told Wired that "despite not feeling safe or comfortable at PAX, she was afraid to pull out of the show because it was a rare opportunity to showcase her independent work." What's more, Krahulik's fans and supporters are many of the same people that developers like Love are trying to attract with their work, so even stepping out against him entails potentially disastrous commercial ramifications.
Krahulik has a lot to learn about his privilege and he had better do it fast because at least some people are making it clear that they're not willing to put up with his bullshit anymore. They still feel like they have to, and that's a whole mess of horrible in its own right, but that kind of influence will fade if Penny Arcade doesn't take steps to slow its fall from the pedestal of gaming icons. Krahulik and all of his fans also need to wake up and get a sense of what freedom of expression really means. Sure, it's their right to embrace the dickwolves joke as some sort of unifying raison d'être, but likewise it's ours to tell them to shove it. If the disapproval is so great as to make the great untouchables at Penny Arcade reconsider their actions then that isn't censorship. Anyone who thinks it is would do well to rethink their understanding of what free expression means, as well as the importance and meaning of other perspectives.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Quick Hit: The Walking Dead and the Birth of the State

Steven Lloyd Wilson over at Pajiba has written a fascinating article on The Walking Dead TV series, which I wrote off as a disappointment a ways back. I watched all of season one and then scattered episodes of season two, and generally felt the adaptation had actually managed to be less inspired than its source material. Needless to say I'm not a big fan of The Walking Dead in any of its forms, with the sole exception of the incredible adventure game by Telltale (but that's a story for a different post).

However, Wilson's article stands as a compelling argument in favour of giving the show another shot. Most of his points aren't really about the show so much as the basic story template set out by Robert Kirkman in the original comics, but regardless Wilson's observations make The Walking Dead seem more interesting and less derivative than it initially appeared. For example, I really like his argument that the characters living in a post-apocalyptic scenario engage in a process of forgetting and re-coding the remains of their dead society. It's the best take on the role of the prison in that story that I've ever heard, and way more interesting than my decidedly-cynical interpretation of it as a tactless literalization of the central metaphor from Dawn of the Dead.

Anyway, you should check out Wilson's article, it's a compelling and interesting reading of a show that I didn't think could give rise to one.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Fast and the Furious Franchise

This movie should not be as awesome as it is

Last week I found myself with some free time on my hands and so I decided to check out the Fast and the Furious movies. That might seem kinda random but I've been hearing good things about the most recent entries in the franchise since the last one, Fast Five, came out in 2011. On top of that, the hype leading up to Fast and Furious 6 (or whatever it's called) has reached critical mass, and so I gave in to the good word and watched each of the five existing films over the course of a few days.

The movies are gloriously stupid. The original The Fast and the Furious is a poor-imitation of Point Break, but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for with flashy car culture. Paul Walker's very existence might be a testament to how underappreciated Keanu Reeves really is, but Vin Diesel at least brings a sense of authenticity to the film. You just can't help but love a guy whose earnest personality shines through as much as Diesel's does, whatever he may lack in acting talent. The movie's fetishization of fast cars isn't really my thing but it's at least well executed, as are the (often anime-inspired) car races/chases. None of them really wowed me but that's partially because the film's real focus is the character dynamics -- admittedly an odd choice given the cast, but somehow it works.

The franchise takes a bit of a wrong turn with its first sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious. It's easily the worst of the bunch, as it loses Diesel and focuses on the much less likeable Walker, and tries to make up for the net loss in charisma with Tyrese Gibson, Eva Mendes, and Cole Hauser. Spoiler warning: that attempt fails. Gibson is an awkward mess of one-liners, Mendes' role and performance could easily have been fulfilled just as well by a cardboard cutout, and Hauser seems like he's only in the movie because he lost a bet. The cast is a void of personality and they're given very little to work with. I actually felt sorry for Gibson when he had to utter the despicable phrase, "It's a ho-asis in here," with the script foolishly over-compensating for the film's deficiencies by laying on the machismo so thick it's self-defeating, not to mention sexist. What's worse, the movie even fails to deliver compelling driving sequences. In trying to up-the-ante from the (relatively) grounded races in the original, 2 Fast 2 Furious relies too heavily on special effects sequences in which simulated motion blur and trails of light convey tension through the illusion of velocity. The movie lacks interesting characters to drive the plot forward and fails to live up to its car-festishization heritage by making the classic too-much-SFX mistake in an attempt to top its predecessor. The entire thing feels perfunctory and aimless, and ends up being entirely pointless. The only bit of 2 Fast 2 Furious worth remembering comes right at the end, when Walker jumps a car onto a moving boat and Gibson almost breaks the fourth wall by pointing out that "This is some real Dukes of Hazzard shit!" It's the only time the movie really seems to get how stupid it is, which is precisely the strength of some later entries in the series.

Next up is The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a significant departure that singlehandedly resuscitated an otherwise dead franchise. It's easy to see why this gem saved the series given that it embraces the things that made the original Fast and the Furious great (compelling character dynamics, ostentatious car culture, and great driving action that's heavily inspired by anime) while avoiding all the pitfalls that ruined 2 Fast 2 Furious (over-focus on special effects, too much reliance on the previous films, and Paul Walker). Really, the status of this movie as a Fast and the Furious movie is something of a misnomer, as (until the final epilogue moment) the only tie between Tokyo Drift and its namesake is the focus on car racing culture. The movie stands on its own with an entirely new cast of characters playing out the classic fish-out-of-water story archetype. It's a movie that effectively tells a familiar tale, has a good time in doing so, and love for fast, flashy cars. In fact, Tokyo Drift actually features the best car scenes of the entire franchise by far, as the reorientation to Japan comes with a new and inherently more cinematic racing style: drifting. The driving sequences are less about raw speed and more about tight turns, isolated moments of tension that are much easier to frame in a camera shot, and this allows the film to revel in actual footage of talented car racing and stunts as opposed to hyper-stylized special effects sequences. It's a welcome change that makes the movie a worthwhile celebration of car racing. Also, the guest star appearance of Sonny Chiba late in the film is a great move that helps contextualize and raise the stakes for the very competent cast of otherwise unknown actors (I'm pretending Bow Wow is just another actor because it's easier to appreciate his role if you ignore his star "power").

The fourth entry in the series, Fast & Furious, is a fun if forgettable return to the franchise's roots. Paul Walker and Vin Diesel are back, as are most of the original cast, and once again there's a plot about going undercover to bring down a criminal enterprise. It's all serviceable but definitely not compelling in its own right, and seems more transparently than it should like an excuse to get Walker and Diesel back into fast cars. There's just not a lot of reason for the viewer to care beyond the presence of those two actors, as Fast & Furious intentionally makes it difficult to relate to their motivations: there's a weak shell game with the villain late in the film that eliminates the possibility of a proper antagonist; more crucially, Michelle Rodriguez's death provides Diesel's motivation but the event occurs off camera at some undefined point after the opening set-piece, and so we're asked to understand his actions simply based on information told to us and a relationship established in a different movie. It's a bit of a mess, but Fast & Furious at least builds on the previous entries to deliver compelling driving sequences. Keeping in mind the strengths of Tokyo Drift, the driving in Fast & Furious is more about practical than special effects, and it makes up for a less cinematic racing style with more stunts and crashes. It's a somewhat effective strategy, but in attempting to remain grounded in reality the movie suffers from "cars driving in a straight line" syndrome.

Finally, there's Fast Five. Hot damn. This movie transforms the franchise into a strange and incredible cross between Ocean's Eleven, The Bourne Identity, and The Fugitive. There's even a little Clear and Present Danger thrown in at one point. All the while the movie retains the Fast and Furious franchise's telltale focus on driving action, and wisely remains grounded in practical-based effects work -- but those scenes are now centred on utterly insane, high-concept set-pieces that are occasionally accented with digital effects work. Director Justin Lin manages to avoid all of the problems with the earlier movies and take their best elements and crank em up to 11. In the first twenty minutes we're given two insane action sequences (including crashing a truck into a moving train!) and two great antagonists: Joaquin de Almeida is always a fantastic villain, and Dwayne Johnson serves as a great source of tension and counterpoint to Vin Diesel. From there the cast of earlier Fast films are reassembled into a crack team for the ultimate heist. It's an absurd but fun plot that does the trick, conveniently setting up the most ludicrous driving sequence in the franchise to-date. All the while the film takes loving, fourth-wall-breaking pot-shots at itself, with Walker and Diesel carelessly winning an obligatory street race off-camera (because as if they could possibly lose at this point) and Johnson instructing his men not to "ever, ever" let the protagonists get into cars. The best is definitely when Sung Kang's Han acknowledges the franchise's irreverent approach to chronology, saying they'll get to Tokyo "eventually" as a nod to the fact that (spoiler alert) he dies in Tokyo Drift, the last entry in the Fast and the Furious timeline. The whole thing is silly, fun, and gracefully executed, making Fast Five a much better movie than I ever expected.

Given how much I obviously enjoyed Fast Five, I'll be curious to see where the franchise goes with Fast and Furious 6. Apparently they're bringing characters back from the dead now, which they've sort of done before with Han albeit not in-cannon. On top of that the villain seems to be a stand in for Heath Ledger's Joker, stating in the trailer that "the code [Diesel et al] live by makes [them] predictable," which is almost word for word what the Joker told Batman in the iconic interrogation scene in The Dark Knight. I'll be curious to see how that move plays out, as Skyfall pulled off the same thing and that movie took itself way more seriously than I expect Fast and Furious 6 will. If nothing else, this next entry in the Fast and Furious franchise will provide one more opportunity to bring the cast together for more silliness and car-based mayhem.

Skip to 1:26 for the villain's Joker-esque line about the heroes' "code"

I really didn't expect to end up liking the Fast and Furious movies. I figured they'd be stupid and a waste of time, and in fairness I was right to a certain extent. 2 Fast 2 Furious is a frankly terrible movie, Fast & Furious is difficult to care about despite enjoying other entries in the series, and I'd rather watch Point Break than the original The Fast and the Furious any day. But that said, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is a great movie, full stop, and Fast Five is way more self-aware and fun than it has any business being. If Justin Lin can bring the kind of inspiration he's brought to the franchise two out of three times with Fast and Furious 6 then we could all be in for a real treat in a couple of weeks. A real stupid, loud, explosive, and flashy treat.

So I guess the Fast and the Furious franchise gets the elusive/über-pretentious "Max Rambles Stamp of Approval." Who'd have seen that one coming?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

How Ad Blocking Hurts Good Journalism

Just over a month ago, Destructoid founder Niero Gonzales ran a piece titled "Half of Destructoid's Readers Block Our Ads. Now What?" It was a sobering breakdown of how ad revenue supports online journalism, and an interesting look at a particular type of outlet: gaming news sites. While the basic point is broadly applicable to all online writing (i.e. ad-blockers hurt writers), that harm is felt more acutely by sites that have tech-savy readers. I'm not a Destructoid reader but I liked Gonzales' piece enough to whitelist the site from my ad-blocking Chrome extension, and started to do the same on sites I do read and appreciate.

Now Ben Kuchera at the Penny Arcade Report has added to the conversation with an insightful, well-written, and depressing examination of the ad revenue model for online journalism. Again the focus is on gaming sites, but that's only relevant insofar as those readers generally use ad-blocker software. The article's real aim is at exposing how the overal model encourages bad writing, and how readers' sophistication actually makes doing good work more difficult.

Go read Kuchera's article. Here's the link again so you can't miss it. And while you're at it, make sure you check out Gonzales' piece too.

When I first read Gonzales' piece a month ago I started whitelisting websites I really appreciate, especially the independent ones. I also considered writing a blog post about it but clearly that didn't pan out. Now, having read Kuchera's much more depressing and outward-facing deconstruction of the overal ad revenue model, I'm considering disabling my ad-blocker entirely. Admittedly that's an extreme response, but if a little annoyance is what it takes to help encourage ad-dependant websites to put out better content then so be it.

The most depressing part of Kuchera's article is how it (at least partially) justifies why sites like Kotaku can put up creepy photo collections of scantily-clad cosplay enthusiasts and then in the next breath release incredible investigative journalism pieces. There's been some buzz on Twitter about whether this point is implicitly defending the sexism behind creepshot photo-galleries, and while I agree that good journalism doesn't justify that kind of exploitation, the larger point is that the model systematically encourages douchebaggery of that ilk. As Kuchera notes at the end of his piece,
Considering research, three drafts, editing, and finding images, it will have taken around six hours and four people to create this story and the images in it. In that time, I could have written around a dozen shorter stories with content taken from other sites. It would have been a better business decision to do so.
It's not ethical for an editor to instruct their writers to put out an exploitative post for the sole purpose of attracting page views, but I can understand why it happens if that's what it takes for the editor to be able to a) continue paying their staff, b) afford the costs of good work, and c) keep the site alive. This notion of lowest-common-denominator-crap bankrolling the good work is nothing new, but the ad revenue context puts it in a new light by exposing the irony that "The better your audience is - the more mature, intelligent, and plugged in - the more likely they are to run an ad-blocking program of some kind." In other words, appreciation of intelligent work is encouraging bad journalism by not supporting the good stuff, and precisely the audience that finds creepy photo galleries of scantily-clad cosplay enthusiasts exploitative is also emphasizing the systemic problems that motivate those posts.

This obviously isn't the entirety of the issue, but it is an important aspect of the financial framework behind journalism that's worth understanding and incorporating into our conduct online. The takeaway is simple: don't block ads on sites that produce good content. At a minimum you'll be helping out the authors and supporting their good practices, and by extension that will combat the ways in which the ad revenue model encourages schlock writing and sexist exploitation. That seems like a pretty big win when the cost is just the slight annoyance of seeing some ads. Also, whenever there's actually intrusive advertising that negatively impacts your experience (i.e. autoplay audio/video or pop-ups) then don't just slap on an ad block, contact the staff and let them know! It's easy enough to do this via means like email or Twitter, and if it's actually a good site worth supporting then they'll work to ensure the advertising is within reasonable limits so that you don't have to block their advertisers in order to enjoy their content.

The nature of the online medium demands a relationship exist between content producers and consumers. It doesn't take much from either side in order to make the current model work as best as it can, and Kuchera and Gonzales have made it clear that they're prepared to work with their audiences. Now it's on us to step up and show that they value the content enough to do the same.

On Chrome it takes as little as two clicks to disable Adblock for a website

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Repost: Anita's Irony

Joseph Reagle has coined a new Internet law (à la Godwin's law) called "Anita's Irony," which states that "Online discussion of sexism or misogyny quickly results in disproportionate displays of sexism and misogyny." The rule comes in response to the ridiculous and depressing backlash against Anita Sarkeesian over the Tropes Vs Women in Video Games video I posted about previously. It's amusing, accurate, and all the more depressing for that.

(Via Feminist Frequency)

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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: A Flawed Masterpiece

I recently found myself with time on my hands again, and I decided to use my renewed freedom to play Irrational Games' Bioshock: Infinite. In some ways the game is a remarkable achievement that deserves a lot of the accolades that gaming media have been throwing at it, but it also deserves some serious criticism. Infinite is definitely not the best game of all time, in fact it might not even be the best entry in its own series. However, it is most certainly a game that demands discussion, especially in terms of its narrative, and that's what I intend to do here.

tl;dr: I really enjoyed Infinite but had serious issues with the game's mechanics and their separation from the storytelling, as well as the game's handling of American history. Infinite is less of an odyssey into America's past than it initially appears to be, and more of a sequel to the original Bioshock than expected. Ultimately, Infinite is a step backwards from the original and its predecessors in terms of gameplay and political discussion. What's more, the game both demands that players keep up with its story about stories while at the same time letting that audience off the hook in terms of the racial issues it raises.

I'm structuring my review into three separate but related sections on Infinite's A) gameplay mechanics, B) sci-fi narrative (because, yes, alternate history is science fiction), and C) use of racial politics. There will be spoilers in my second and third sections, but the first should be spoiler free and I'll give another warning before I get to the spoilery stuff.

The Setup, In Brief

For anyone who's reading along without prior knowledge of Bioshock: Infinite, it's a sequel to Bioshock, the "highest rated first-person shooter of all time" and a spiritual successor to the System Shock series. These "Shock" games have each been hailed for their immersive environments, complex narrative themes, interesting villains, and varied game mechanics. Infinite is a narrative-driven shooter set in a fictional version of 1912. The game takes place in the city of Columbia, a city-in-the-sky that seceded from the United States after the Boxer Rebellion. The now independent floating-city-nation is deeply patriotic and religious, seeing itself as a purer form of America -- in every sense -- and worshiping some of the Founding Fathers as saints. The whole society is led by Father Zachary Comstock, a supposed Prophet who makes more than a few comparisons between Columbia and Noah's Ark.

I've described the place as "a jingoistic Laputa," but that got me called-out as a pretentious jerk. I still think it's a pretty apt description, but then so is the pretentious jerk bit.

Anyway, the setup for the game is simple: you play Booker DeWitt, a down-and-out former Pinkerton who's made a deal to have his gambling debts wiped away if he can get a girl from Columbia. Whether he's on a rescue or kidnapping mission is not entirely clear, as his motivation seems to begin and end at solving his own problems. However, as the game progresses it becomes clear that neither Booker, Columbia, nor the mysterious girl, Elizabeth, are what they initially appear to be.

Two Steps Forwards, One Step Back: Infinite's Self-Contradictory Gameplay Mechanics

Infinite doesn't seem to have a clear sense of what kind of game it wants to be. In one sense, Infinite is much more a modern console shooter than any of the "Shock" games before it, as the new game restricts you to having two guns at any given time where the previous games did not. Whatever you find yourself faced with, you'll either have to have the right guns for the situation going in or else hope to find the right tools on the battlefield. Additionally, Irrational has taken a Halo approach to life, giving the player an auto-recharging shield in addition to the persistent life bar from previous "Shock" games. However, in contrast to how regenerating health or stronger regenerating shield encourage experiment and play in other games, Infinite's shield is gone so often and suddenly that you'll be running for cover so it can recharge, and in the likely case that your health has been drained then you'll also want to heal. On top of this, Irrational took an extra step and removed your ability to store healing items for later use this time around, so when you're low you'll be running for the nearest vending machine or trashcan. The net effect is that Infinite emphasizes the scavenger-hunt gameplay of previous "Shock" games by forcing you to constantly be on the lookout for health/mana/currency/ammo even more than in the past. This in turn encourages either conservative or frantic play, especially during battle, as anything you use/lose is gone until you find replacements in the game world.

However, in contrast to this are the new elements Infinite brings to the table: Elizabeth and skylines. The former gives periodic supplies in the midst of battle and opens up new tactical options via "tears" that dynamically change the environment, while the latter presents an unprecedented opportunity for verticality and momentum on the battlefield. There's quite simply nothing like your first fight in one of the skyline arenas, and the joy I felt in the fight immediately following the "Hall of Heroes" section justifies playing the game all on its own. Likewise, having Elizabeth in tow is the exact opposite of the game-long escort mission some people feared. Instead she provides a real sense of partnership and backup that I can't recall experiencing in any game before this one; you genuinely miss her whenever she's gone from your side, as the odds feel distinctly stacked against you alone. These elements just beg for you to push the envelope and try your odds at the new methods of traversal and combat on the battlefield, to change it as you see fit where needed, and to rely on a helping hand from Elizabeth in a pinch. However, this stands in contrast to the conservative impulses brought on by the two-weapon arsenal and strange approach to your lifebar. The possibility of frantic play is there, but the consequence for death of losing money -- and with it the ability to expand the potential of your arsenal and thus the possibilities for experimentation -- reiterates the wisdom of playing it safe.

The cumulative experience of playing through Infinite is equally frustrating and inspiring, as its advances encourage a form of gameplay that its changes to the "Shock" formula betray. The adherence to tropes from two branches of earlier games -- modern shooters and the previous "Shock" games -- feels self-contradictory, as the elements cribbed from both add up to something that isn't quite as fun as either. There's something anachronistic about the combination, it's just not clear which part feels out of place: I kept wanting Infinite to let me be more tactical and experimental, like the original Bioshock, but the game seemed to encourage a pace more in line with something like Halo; at the same time though, the new elements opened up combat possibilities that the health item, scavenger-focused gameplay discouraged me from really diving into. It wasn't constantly a problem, but a few notable points (specifically a few fights with a certain ghost and the climactic shootout) really emphasized the disjunction of Infinite's constitutive elements.

If all this sounds overly negative it's just because the high-points in Infinite are so incredible and unique that you become acutely aware of the parts that otherwise hold it back from being that way all the time. There are moments in Infinite when the team at Irrational capture lightning in a bottle and deliver something that lives up to and exceeds all the hype behind the game, there's also just enough -- if not more -- instances where it feels like they're holding themselves back. Even beyond the promised single-player DLC, I hope this isn't the last time we see combat arenas like Infinite's skyline playgrounds, because there's simply nothing else like them.

I should acknowledge that I played through Infinite on the Hard difficulty after numerous reviews said it was too easy on the default setting. However, now that I've played through the game I'm hearing other people complain of balancing issues on the Hard setting (note: spoilers through that link). In the end it's all just more reason to play through it again, if only to see if the kind of experimentation I hoped for is more possible on the easier settings. But I do feel like Infinite's basic mechanical design tries to go in two distinct and contrary directions at once, and hence fails on a fundamental level where the original Bioshock succeeded by having a more coherent focus.

However, that does make sense given the extent to which the actual gameplay in Infinite is secondary to its narrative as opposed to complementary, which brings me to my next point...

Infinite's Uneven but Brilliant Approach to Alternate Timelines

One of the reasons this review of Infinite is being written in three separate chunks is that "the core gameplay is entirely separate to the narrative," as Jake over at Scripted Sequence points out in his spoiler-filled review. Likewise, Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed says "the rules of the [first-person shooter] genre are at odds with the very magnificence of Irrational's game" and concludes that Infinite "is so terrific that it feels diminished by a genre that it is better than." This distinction between Infinite's purpose and its form led Jake to wonder "what would happen if we replaced it with another genre of gameplay. Or even stripped it out entirely?" It's a valid question because, for all of its uniqueness and high-points, the combat in Infinite is entirely secondary to its narrative. Irrational games has something to say and Infinite was the vessel with which they chose to do so, the fact that it's a shooter is frankly incidental to that thesis. Both Jake and Joseph point towards the argument that the game is a shooter just because that genre sells well, and honestly that's probably not even a point of debate at this point. However, that's also beside the point of what I want to say here, which is that Infinite is a fun (albeit lopsided) shooter that's intended to tell a story.

And what a story it is. Spoilers from here on out.

The narrative in Infinite is, on the whole, dazzling. It takes storytelling in games to places it's never gone before and demands a lot more participation and work from gamers than we're used to. Bioshock put forward a challenging and complex political discussion that was unprecedented and justly hailed at its time. Now, Infinite outshines that achievement with a similarly detailed plot that likewise uses the medium to subvert our sense of agency, but creates that revelation from a deconstruction of narrative driven video games.

I'll admit that's kind of a big statement, and in attempting to justify it this post briefly got away from me. For now it's suffice to say that I believe the use of Elizabeth as a guide through Columbia, and a source of power to slip between worlds, is ultimately a symbol for Irrational's imaginative role as the creator of narrative video games. I'm going to follow up this piece with a detailed analysis of Infinite's ending, but here I'd prefer to focus on evaluating Irrational's approach to the fiction.

It should be clear from the foregoing that, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative in Infinite. My reading of how everything adds up very closely aligns with Tom Phillips' explanation over at Eurogamer. The notion that there are three significant -- or at least relevant -- branches of Booker's history across the infinite worlds makes sense to me: we play through the game as Booker from the timelines in which he attended but rejected the baptism, and was then racked and defined by guilt for his actions at Wounded Knee; Comstock represents the timelines in which Booker attended and accepted the baptism, and hence cast off his guilt and moved on to support Lutece and found Columbia; the game concludes with both these branches being cut off as Elizabeth changes the timelines so that both Bookers drowned at the baptism; finally, the only surviving Booker is from the timelines where he never attended the baptism, and so never became Comstock or gave up Anna (as signaled by the post-credits epilogue). As someone who grew up watching Sliders, this all makes perfect sense to me. Infinite different timelines, sure, I get it. And really, when you put it all down on paper it is a very '90s-esque, Jurassic Park-style chaos theory kind of plot. Infinite's concept is not what makes it succeed, but rather the way that concept it slowly revealed to the player -- and, I intend to argue, how that concept is used to launch a meta-discussion of creating narrative games.

However, all of this is not to say that Irrational is completely successful in their storytelling. On the contrary, Infinite's greatest stumbling point is precisely when the story shifts gears from an escape-narrative to an adventure across multiple worlds: the moment where Elizabeth opens the tear to a world where Chen Li is not dead. In an apparent attempt to keep the player in the dark as to precisely what's going on, Infinite consciously fails to clearly establish the differences between the world that you leave and the one that you enter. Booker himself notes that it's hard to imagine that the only change could be Chen Li remaining alive, and yet we are not given a clear sense of what these differences are. This is in contrast to the section later in the game when you are suddenly brought forward in time to the dystopian future in which Booker never saved Elizabeth; throughout the incredible journey through Comstock House, we are treated to a series of tears and voxophones that provide a clear sense of what qualities make that timeline unique and the consequences thereof -- specifically the old Elizabeth's attack on New York in the 1980s. It's one of the best parts of the game, and the clever way in which Irrational immerses you in an unfamiliar world and then teaches you about it demonstrates how poorly the game handles your first jumps into alternate timelines.

The problem with failing to establish the differences worlds is that your dimension hopping makes Infinite's story feel disjointed and structureless. When you first enter the world where Chen Li is still alive, the narrative thread of Jeremiah Fink's attempts to hire Booker is suddenly cut off; what's more, the Vox Populi suddenly seem to be a more aggressive and successful force. No concrete reasons for these differences are provided, and the player is left to wonder, "What else is different about this new Columbia I'm in now?" This instantly removes our sense of forward momentum through a consequential narrative, and throughout the remaining portion of Fink Manufacturing I felt more like a powerless visitor to Columbia than at any other time in my play-through of Infinite. My actions as Booker seemed to have some effect on Chen Li and his wife, on the people I killed, and on the Vox Populi, but it was never clear what it all meant. To top it off, I suddenly heard Booker telling me that Daisy Fitzroy was just as bad as Comstock, but for no discernible reason besides that she was leading a violent revolution as opposed to simply planning one.

Infinite requires that you accept the notion of different worlds and timelines, each separated by more than mere superficial / minor details, but then demands you find narrative coherency across these disparate timelines without providing sufficient context to do so. The clearest victims of this approach to storytelling are Fitzroy and her Vox Populi, whose revolution suddenly becomes "bad" the moment the bullets start flying.

The Revolution Must Be Violent, Otherwise Who Would You Shoot? - Infinite's Trivialization of American Racial Politics

One of the earliest draws to Infinite was that it seemed poised to examine American political culture with the same critical lens Bioshock turned to objectivism. The very notion of a city in the sky with aggressively patriotic leanings was fascinating, and seemed like the perfect platform to examine American exceptionalism and isolationist politics. Infinite was marketed with this image in mind, with preview videos showing off the Motorized Patriot enemy and a brilliant trailer intentionally set to a song titled "Beast of America." All early accounts seemed to indicate that Infinite's narrative would focus on the history of American politics, following Bioshock with a critical examination of a specific nationalist ideology.

However, this isn't quite the case with the final product. Certainly the advertised elements are present in the foreground during the earlier portion of the game. Infinite is an aesthetic masterpiece, and nowhere is this more evident than in the opening hours when Booker first arrives in Columbia and begins his search for Elizabeth. Through Booker's eyes, we witness a deific approach to America's founding fathers, an unnerving racial hierarchy, and jingoist politics. This focus continues on through the great Hall of Heroes section of the game, where the Boxer Rebellion and the Battle of Wounded Knee are portrayed in jarringly stereotyped images; as Tom Bramwell writes, "Wounded Knee wasn't a famous US victory, it was a massacre of women and children, and the Boxer Rebellion was a politically complex conflict," and Infinite's focus on these events makes good on all its promise to examine American political history.

However, at just about the same moment that the narrative stumbles into its first alternate timeline, Infinite drops its examination of American political culture. From the point when Booker and Elizabeth start trying to save Chen Li from his fate, the game's focus becomes Elizabeth and the nature of her powers. As I've mentioned above, the outcome of this plot is an incredible and unmatched deconstruction of narrative gaming, but it comes at the expense of the a more Bioshock-like critique of American history and ideology. This wouldn't be a problem in and of itself if it weren't for how the elements established earlier in the game are used to inform the narrative in its latter sections, particularly the Vox Populi and their rebellion against Columbia's racial hierarchy.

Although the earlier portions of Infinite present an unsettling vision of race in America's past, these elements ultimately serve as window dressing for its meta-game narrative in a way that trivializes them. The white supremacist ideology that informs Columbia's segregation is more or less relegated to informing our understanding of Booker and Comstock's character arcs. It's also intriguingly hinted that the racial hierarchy is informed by Fink's capitalist pragmatism, but any potential examination of this idea is suddenly cut off by the timeline hopping: as mentioned above, when we step into the first tear Booker's interactions with Fink cease, effectively terminating any direct interaction with the character; more conclusively, Fink and his politics exit the game entirely when Fitzroy executes him. But it's in Fitzroy that Infinite's swept aside examination of racial politics becomes troubling, as her Vox Populi rebellion is transformed in an instant from a desperately needed response to the racism of Columbia's rulers, and becomes simply a bloody excuse for combat.

The transition of Fitzroy -- and by extension the Vox Populi -- from a freedom fighter to a villain is poorly handled, to say the least. In the space of just a few minutes, she goes from being the kind of force that Booker acknowledges is needed to fight back against oppression, specifically "because of people like [him]" (i.e. Pinkertons and other such suppressors of dissent) to being little more than Comstock spelt differently; the only things that changes in all this is that the Vox Populi begin a military assault on Columbia, specifically its institutions of hierarchical power like Fink Manufacturing. The act of simply fighting back against rigid, racial oppression is presented as though it is enough to transform Fitzroy from a hero to a villain, and the Vox Populi from allies to foes to shoot. We're shown nothing to disenchant us with the Vox's revolution beyond possibly an execution of soldiers, and frankly that is not enough to justify the sudden turn. The revolution against Columbia's racial oppression becomes the last vestige of Infinite's political examination, and by immediately discounting it as equivalent to its target institution the game trivializes the motivations behind it. Rather, the ongoing battle throughout Columbia provides little more than an opportunity for new types of guns and enemies to shoot at, an approach that in turn begs the question as to whether or not it was all in service of having the game be a first-person shooter.

Anjin Anhut's article, "Bioshock Infinite - Infinite Privilege," makes a decent argument against the problematic approach to race throughout Infinite. Though I don't entirely agree with their analysis, Anhut makes a very good point in saying:
And even if your white guilt absolving moral play is just meant to be a piece of fiction and the american racism is just a stylish backdrop. Even if Bioshock Infinite is not commentary, not analog to what you think is going down today or has been going down in the past… …how dare you abuse that still relevant conflict, that pain and sacrifice of people still living and still suffering from it… and turn into some sort of joke, like nazi zombies or something?
I agree that, despite how the early parts of Infinite and its marketing focus on the world of Columbia, in the end that setting -- and its contents -- are simply backdrop for the aforementioned sci-fi meta-narrative on storytelling. In one sense that's perfectly fine, as the ultimate outcome is an incredible achievement in its own right. However, it's also disappointing to see the examination of America's past -- and present -- racial issues so pointlessly raised only to be cast aside, and deeply troubling to note that this move seems purely in service of providing typical first-person shooter guns and targets. To put those elements into focus just to then transform their revolution into an excuse for violent gameplay seems downright exploitative, and it's definitely not up to the standard Irrational has set for itself. It's intentionally deceptive, and though that's not inherently wrong, the way it's done trivializes very real struggles with racism and intolerance that continue to this day. The Vox's motivations never disappear, but their sudden recasting as villains renders the meaning of their struggle irrelevant, and for the rest of Infinite they provide little more than resistance in your path towards the game's conclusion.

"It's all a matter of perspective" - My Final Thoughts on Bioshock: Infinite

As per usual, I've managed to critique the hell out of something I sincerely enjoyed. Bioshock: Infinite is an incredible game, one that should be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates good narratives, in video games or otherwise. Granted, there are significant issues with the gameplay, and the handling of American culture and politics is ultimately disappointing, especially in how Infinite casts freedom fighters against racial oppression as villains. However, all of that is not to detract from the game's incredible accomplishments. Infinite is unquestionably an aesthetic masterpiece, and you're likely -- even encouraged -- to just stare at the background and soak in the atmosphere of the world Irrational has created in Columbia. There's just nothing else like it, and it is both beautiful and intellectually stimulating. Moreover, the narrative is an incredible feat for the medium, and clearly takes inspiration from some great works of fiction, both sci-fi and otherwise. The mind-bending ending just adds to the already densely layered and intriguing story that unfolds throughout Infinite, and though I'll be touching on that specifically in my upcoming ending analysis it bears stating that the entire story of Bioshock: Infinite is worthwhile and compelling. With all this positivity in mind, the problems with Infinite don't so much hinder the experience of its best aspects, as much as they beg the question, "Why is Irrational still making first-person shooters?"

The answer is "so they can keep making more," and while there's a whole spectrum of possible debate on that point, that's for another day. For now I'm just going to play through the ending of Bioshock: Infinite again to see if I can glean any new insights for my ending analysis. It's truly a mindbender that just keeps on giving, and though I don't think there's any definitive word to be said on its meaning I do think it's going to be good fun to discuss what it means to me.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Errant Signal - Spec Ops: The Line

Recently, I finally had the chance to play through Spec Ops: The Line. I know I'm pretty late to the party but it hadn't exactly been near the top of my priority list until Sony started giving it away for "free." In any case, I played through it and though I didn't find it to be the Game of the Year contender that some touted it as being, it was definitely one of the more interesting and subversive titles I've ever experienced. You just had to slog through some seriously uninspired mechanics to get to that narrative.

I've been mulling over the game in the back of my head and thinking about writing a post about it. I downloaded Killing Is Harmless by Brendan Keogh, a long-form critical discussion of Spec Ops that I'm interested in if only to see someone take such a significant and serious attempt at criticism of the medium. Once I finish that I may take a stab at writing something about the game if I have anything unique to contribute to the (more or less finished) conversation about its themes.

This morning I came across this great video that pretty much canvasses everything there is to say about Spec Ops brilliantly. It's a fantastic watch and I highly recommend it if you've a) played through Spec Ops, or b) don't expect to ever play through it. This is a rare instance where I feel like the general, non-video game playing public should really check out this video on a game, as it effectively ties the game's internal conversation to a larger, political discussion about war culture.

If you truly feel disinterested in video games then skip ahead to the 16:20 mark in the video and just watch the last two and a half minutes. I'm sure you can spare the time and I promise you it'll be well spent, as it's a great final word about the conversation that a military shooter video game is trying to start.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Reposts: Rock, Paper, Shotgun on Misogyny and Video Games

John Walker over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun -- an outlet I don't read but am constantly hearing good things about -- has written a great piece about combatting misogyny in video games. The website has taken a strong stance speaking out against sexism in games and the gaming industry, and in this latest piece Walker outlines why fighting these issues matters as well as his personal thoughts.

It's his last bit, though, that really struck a chord with me: at the end of the article he outlines a few typical responses in discussions of this subject, and then specifically identifies why they're wrong and unproductive. I'm going to share the section in full because it's a pretty awesome and succinct take-down of some of the most irritatingly obtuse contributions to serious discussions of gender and video games, and it would save the collective populace a lot of energy and grief if more people would take these things to heart. All of these concepts can also be extrapolated outside the video gaming context, and I appreciate any attempts to improve conversations broadly. It's a bit like the Ill Doctrine video that I mentioned last month about how to have serious conversations about race and racism. Anyway, without further ado, here are a few ways you shouldn't respond to discussions of gender and video games, and why not:

“Why are you writing about feminism on a GAMING site?”

This question, like so many objecting to any discussion of the lack of equality in the industry, betrays itself immediately. When a publisher issues financial results and we report on them, we don’t see, “Why are you writing about economics on a GAMING site?” When there’s discussion of the effects of violence on players, we don’t read, “Why are you writing about sociology on a GAMING site?” It’s only when the gaming-related subject is the portrayal or treatment of women do such people become enraged by any post that isn’t literally describing the content of a particular videogame.

And to answer the question: because it’s relevant, and it matters. 50% of gamers are women, and around 20% of “hardcore” gamers are women. While the majority of RPS’s readers are men, that’s not something we’re proud of. (Many gaming sites strive for this, as it performs well with advertisers. We would prefer breadth.) We write for a global audience, and we aim not to presume whom our reader might be. We know that matters affecting women affect our audience, whatever their sex, and we know they affect the games industry we cover. We believe in equality, and when we are aware of inequality in the industry upon which we report, it is relevant for us to cover, and we believe important to highlight.

“What happened to this site? You used to write about GAMES.”

This is obviously one of the more strange responses, yet certainly among the most prolific. At least 95% of the posts on RPS are directly about games themselves, as is obvious to anyone looking at it. Posts related to matters regarding women make up the tiniest percentage of our output, and it’s obviously nonsense to make the claim above.

“You’re just trying to be a white knight/get laid.”


This particular response is designed to undermine the writer, not only suggesting that caring about equality is something inherently driven by a desire for sex/validation, but that the very idea of caring at all is so unrealistic. Either the accuser cannot conceive of the notion of caring about another’s rights independently of one’s own gratification, or they are so fearful of the potential of equality that they’re driven to undermine those who argue for it. Either way, if you’re typing the words “white knight”, you’re revealing more about your own peculiar understanding of how humans interact than anything else.

“Why don’t you talk about men’s issues?”

First of all, the question presumes the peculiar notion that writing about women’s issues precludes our writing about men’s. That’s obviously ridiculous. And secondly, sadly the question is generally used dishonestly.

There are issues that affect men, and often men who are the target demographic of gaming. Suicide is an especially serious example, and it’s something RPS has covered, and expressed concern over. Our caring about equality in the games industry, and in the portrayal of women, does not exclude our caring about matters affecting men. Obviously.

However, the question is generally designed to derail. It’s often as relevant as asking, “Why don’t you talk about digital download re-sales?” at the end of an article about the troubles of pre-ordering. Sure, why don’t we? Good thing to talk about. Not really a pertinent question in this instance. And that’s the idea – by asking this broad, presumptive question, the aim is to distort the discussion from the matter at hand, which in turn further leaves the matter at hand undiscussed. By the time you’re having tiresome arguments about whether male characters being shown as successful and strong is harmful to men, you’re no longer discussing the fact that scantily clad women are being used to sell videogames. That’s the ultimate aim of the question.

“I know a girl who thinks X, so you are wrong.”

This angle is generally used to argue against anything that is said to misrepresent women, or to represent women in a bad way. This known girl, fictional or real, likes it, so why does anyone have a problem? The argument oddly presumes that a matter is only of concern if women are exclusively and unanimously against it. Men’s views are irrelevant, and indeed all other views are irrelevant, because there’s this one girl who thinks… This is about as useful an argument as someone’s claiming homoeopathy works, against all abundant evidence, because their mum’s knee felt better.

“People are exaggerating on both sides.”

This, and many variants on it, are all about pretending to want to bring “balance” to the argument, in order to prevent its taking place at all. It’s dishonest, based on unexplained, undefined notions of exaggeration, perhaps if pressed illustrated by a single example that likely only emphasises the faux-diffuser’s prejudice. As and when people exaggerate in any debate, it’s great to call people out on it. People called out the issues in a recent post I put on RPS about gender wage gaps, which one could describe as exaggeration. That’s a good thing to do. It, however, has no bearing on the facts that there are problems that need to be dealt with, and the line is usually employed when trying to ensure nothing is allowed to change.

“It’s just a bit of fun.”

When I undermine you in front of your boss, lie about you behind your back, and play cruel tricks on you, it’s just a bit of fun! Oh, wait, those things aren’t fun because they’re happening to you? Gosh, imagine if such a perspective were available when other things that other people don’t like are happening to them? But no, it’s just a bit of fun, then. They should just get over it.

- - -
'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Dramatic Reading of Sexist YouTube Comments

The following video comes in response to that heartwarming story about a dude who hacked the original Donkey Kong arcade game to let his daughter play the game as a girl. Apparently some people took issue with the hack:

I'm torn about this video. On the one hand, it's a visceral reminder of how much people suck. On the other hand, if people are going to be shitty on the Internet then at least we can get funny videos to slightly sweeten the deal. It's a "spoonful of sugar" type deal, because laughing at people for being stupid is more fun than getting angry. Or at least the laughter helps with the anger.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Belated Media: Hollywood Horror & Societal Scares

I'm up-to-my-eyes in deadlines right now and thus without enough time to really post anything of substance, but in one of my post-work veg-out sessions I've come across a fantastic video that I just have to share with you all. It's from Belated Media, who I've posted about before, and covers how horror movies discuss societal concerns through...

Wait! Wait! Don't go!

Seriously, even if you're not a fan -- hell, especially if you're not a fan -- of horror movies, I urge you to check out this video. It answers the "I don't get what people see in those movies" question brilliant, with the absolute least amount of gore necessary and precisely zero actual scares. Seriously, there are none of the things you (think you) don't like about horror movies in this video. It covers everything from the original War of the Worlds to the Saw movies, with stops along the way for Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Scream, and others. It's an incredible canvassing of the genre that should not be missed, either by horror fans (though admittedly there's not much new here for you) or people who just don't get what all the fuss is about (yet).

Without further ado, check it out. After all, what better way to procrastinate than to learn something cool? *I'm looking at you fellow students in exams*

Monday, March 25, 2013 Narrative in Gaming

The folks over at have put together a great video on narrative in gaming. It's well-worth a watch if you're interested in the kinds of subjects I've explored here in the past.

Also, can I just say that I love where GameTrailers' editorial direction has been moving recently? I'm not going to say it's because Shane Satterfield left, but there has certainly been a dramatic change that's coincided with his departure. Some aspects haven't been ideal (a few of the new, free-form reviews have felt too scattered) but generally there's more varied and interesting content coming out of the site, and all of it feels more earnest and human. For the first time in years the site feels more like a legit source of criticism than a corporate advertisement hub, and it is a fantastic change for viewers.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bradley Manning Tells His Story in Leaked Court Recording

Democracy Now! is reporting on a leaked court recording of Private Bradley Manning speaking at his pretrial hearing last month. It is the first time Manning has been heard publicly since he was arrested three years ago for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, including the "Collateral Murder" video of US soldiers in Baghdad firing on civillians from an apache helicopter (viewable below).

This is a fascinating opportunity to hear from the man whose actions sparked the controversy that put WikiLeaks on the map. It's also a reminder that Manning's legal battle is still ongoing and that his guilt is yet to be determined, despite President Obama's problematic assertion in 2011 that Manning "broke the law." In fact Manning only just recently pled guilty to the charges against him for leaking classified materials to WikiLeaks, and notably continues to deny charges including "aiding the enemy."

Manning's battle continues to be politically and ethically charged, inspired by horror at the US Military's "bloodlust" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democracy Now!'s transcript demonstrates Manning's belief that greater public knowledge would lead to more informed political discourse and foreign policy:
I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables, this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general, as well as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan. 
I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the debate—that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment every day.
It's hard to believe this is the first time the public has heard directly from Manning since his arrest, but then it must be difficult to release statements when you're in custody. To this day Manning remains confined at Fort Leavenworth, KS, where he continues his three year wait for a trial.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MovieBob on Tropes vs Women in Video Games

I've spent more hours than I care to admit over the last few days fighting with people on reddit about the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. I know, I know, it's fighting on the Internet (and reddit specifically) but I just couldn't help myself after reading so many arguments that a) Anita Sarkeesian thinks video games are evil, b) Sarkeesian is a shitty journalist and that's what the backlash against her was about, c) it doesn't matter that the damsel in distress trope reduces women to objects because it's just a simple storytelling device, or d) in fact the trope also objectifies the male hero figure so lets talk about that.


Anyway, after putting so much energy into fighting about shitty responses to Tropes vs Women in Video Games, the prospect of a video on the subject by MovieBob filled me with palpable fear. I really, really like MovieBob. I think he's a great, witty commenter who puts out a prolific amount of amazing content. I do not agree with all of his opinions, both on culture and politics, but generally I enjoy his perspective and look forward to his videos. However, when I saw that he had put out a ten minute long video on Tropes vs Women I was nervous. A few days of fighting about it on reddit had more or les conditioned me to assume that any video on the subject would be frustrating and infuriating, and I wasn't sure if I could take that from someone I admire as much as MovieBob.

Thankfully, my gut reaction was completely misguided. It's like I forgot who MovieBob is, as he's repeatedly demonstrated that he has a solid understanding of gender politics. His video is a great addition to the debate going on right now, and more or less just calls out all the trolls who have been/still are freaking out over this. It's a solid video that does a better job at identifying exactly what Anita Sarkeesian is doing with her videos than anything else I've seen lately. Check it out, enjoy, and if you end up back on his The Game Overthinker website avoid checking out the comments, because man are they ever depressing.


Friday, March 8, 2013

Tropes vs Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress Part 1

The first video in Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games series has been released, and can be viewed below. It's the first part of a discussion of the gaming-incarnation of the "damsel in distress" trope, and is a fascinating watch. This entry effectively canvases the use of the trope in the Zelda and Mario series, as well as the transformation of Rare's Dinosaur Planet into Starfox Adventures. Check it out, it's worth your 25 minutes!

In case you weren't aware of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series before checking out this video, you should know that the newly-launched series has already been the subject of much controversy (all of which kinda makes a good case for the series' existence). Sarkeesian has been making her Tropes vs Women videos for a while, but for the video games extension of the series she turned to Kickstarter to get funding from fans. For reasons that (frankly) allude elude me, this was seen as some sort of irredeemable transgression on her part, and attracted the collective hatred of misogynistic gamers from the depths of the Internet. Slate's Amanda Marcotte sums it up nicely:
Sarkeesian's story is a doozy, by the way. She started a Kickstarter page to raise money to make a documentary about the tropes used by video game designers to portray female characters. She hadn't expressed an opinion about video games yet, but simply by stating that she would at some point in the future do so, she had to endure an absolute avalanche of misogynist abuse from men who hoped they could silence her before her too-scary-to-be-heard opinion could be voiced. Every access point they could exploit was used to try to get to her, especially her YouTube page. Her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalized with lies, links out to porn sites, and pornographic pictures. Eventually, Wikipedia shut it down.
Wow. Sarkeesian asked for a paltry $6,000 from fans to make a series about videos games and the roles of women within them, and just for that she was viciously attacked. Helen Lewis at the New Statesman canvases the harassment and intimidation tactics Sarkeesian was subjected to, and it's a pretty harrowing read. Thankfully the story at least has a happy turn in that Sarkeesian was able to raise over $150,000, and will be putting out follow ups to the video above.

So now we have a solid video series examining gaming with a critical lens that is sorely needed. We also have a moment of shame in the gaming community that can be pointed to as evidence that there is something tangibly wrong with the way (many) gamers think about gender and deal with other people. I'm at a bit of a loss trying to conceive of how anyone thought it would be reasonable to harass anyone the way Sarkeesian was harassed, much less for the mere prospect of having an opinion, but clearly that was the case for a great many people out there. Again, this kind of thinking within the gaming community is precisely the reason why we need these kinds of videos, as the only way to make any sorts of changes to these phenomena is discussion and education.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Repost: The Good, Racist People

Last month Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting and frisked in a New York deli down the street from Columbia University. Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic has weighed in on the event by identifying the larger problem behind it in his fantastic piece, "The Good, Racist People." I don't want to summarize it for you, it's a concise, powerful piece that you should go read now. That said, I do want to highlight this particular passage for elegantly identifying (one of) the issue(s) at play here:
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist ... The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.
As Coates points out, this distinction between being racist and being a good person makes racism forgivable. Good people can't be racist, and so when these people do racist things they are forgiven in some other way (they were just doing their job, they were just trying to protect their family, they were reacting poorly to a crowd, etc.) because, again, they're good people and so they can't be racist. The net outcome of this type of doublethink is that society refuses to examine how racism continues to exist today. Where "good people" are guilty of it they are forgiven/excused because their goodness negates the possibility of them being either evil or racist. When people can't be forgiven for it, well, anyone heard from Kramer lately?

I'm reminded of the fantastic ill doctrine video on "How to Tell People They Sound Racist" (below), which provided a handy guide for telling people how to examine when they sounded racist. That video drew the distinction between the "what they did" conversation and the "what they are" conversation. As an informational guide, the video gave advice for how to have a conversation with people about their statements and beliefs without making them feel accused of being racist (which tends to end a discussion on bad terms). The point was to provide a methodology for having productive discussions of race (and racism) while being mindful of the possibility that people involved in such discussions might say things inspired by underlying prejudices without them being aware of it.

Coates point is similar in how he wants to have a conversation about racism in contemporary society that doesn't end the moment someone gets called out for their prejudices. The tension underpinning both their arguments is precisely this linking of racism and evil that works to cease productive discussion and forgive transgressions. We freeze the moment someone drops a 'hard R' and immediately turn to the defensive, "Well I'm a good person and therefore not a racist and therefore right" mentality. At best this isn't helping and at worst it's ignoring the problem in such a way as to allow it to continue and proliferate in an act of, you guessed it, racism. Coates goes on to allude to how this attitude towards racism in society "haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence." There's a real and measurable cost of this notion that racism exists only in the worst people of the world or in times gone by, and until we can do away with that idea and confront the continued prejudices alive in society today we will continue to live in an unequal and hostile community.

(Coates piece via @JAWalker, ill doctrine video via a good friend a long time ago)
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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.